An Introduction to Practical Theology

History, Theory, and the Communication of the Gospel in the Present

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Christian Grethlein
Translator(s): 
Uwe Rasch
  • Waco, TX: 
    Baylor University Press
    , August
     2016.
     278 pages.
     $34.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781481305174.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

I find this a welcome volume on an important subject to church practitioners who take theology seriously, when the very practice of ministry is reflected on for the sake of clarity and comprehensiveness (where, proverbially, the forest cannot always be seen because of the trees, and vice versa). An Introduction to Practical Theology further attends well to the issue of process or medium—how it is that theorists, and those in the trenches, endeavor to communicate their life work and studies with each other and beyond. However, it is a challenge to write convincingly for practitioners as well as the academy. This surely is the burden of practical theology (PT), and a tall order to always satisfy at least these two sectors—as much, alas, as each needs the other.

This work excels in the way that each chapter and each section is given clear advanced bibliographies and summaries. It perhaps suffers from being an abridged (by more than half) translation, where most of the cited sources are left untranslated, and for which a glossary of some technical terms (e.g., aspectivity, multiperspectivity, pluriformity, dialogicity, erlebnisgesellschaft) is missing. Nonetheless, it serves the purpose of presenting a theoretical and historical perspective that at least conveys the spirit of European, and specifically German, research (chapter 2’s “Practical Theology in Catholicism and the United States” is a welcome exception, while chapter 1 is a helpful literature review of German works). The pervading focus is on some of the theories, perspectives, models, and modes of communication utilized in PT—especially given the phenomena of the internet and all forms of electronic media. “The forms of communication that have become possible alter our perceptions of reality, the way we live, and our forms of interaction,” says author Christian Grethlein (1). Helpfully, there are insightful critiques of mass media communications where elitism and reductionism prevail (129). There is a distinct focus on Marshall McLuhan’s claim that “the medium is the message.”

An Introduction to Practical Theology comes close to fulfilling its purpose “to make professional knowledge available and productive for daily life, and conversely, to incorporate people’s needs into theory-driven praxis” (254). To the extent that the book delivers on this aim depends on what perspectives readers bring to the text. Some of us will be challenged by the levels of theory presented while some will be disappointed at not receiving more actual practical recommendations, but few of us will leave the book without having been creatively nudged and even cajoled. The last chapter, “Communicating About, With, and From God,” feels most accessible and significant. There is a succinct rationale provided: “telling, praying, and blessing … provide access to the communication of the gospel,” and “it is upon these forms that the forms of talking (with each other), singing, and healing repose” (208). This is conveyed by way of several actual church rites where the on-the-ground-minister works most often: rites like blessings, anointing, or baptism; disciplines like prayer; and worship modes such as singing, sermons, and services themselves.

If this book were more like an anthology, then I would hope for more North American and Latin American input. I would further hope for some discussion of what PT has meant globally and what it yearns to mean (chapter 1’s “Practical Theology in Germany” assists in this). Is PT a form of praxis, where there are reflections or analysis based on the activities of the church’s ministers and ministries, or more than mere pastoral or priestly practices, more even than charitable responses to societal and global inequalities and indignities? There is evidence of this especially in the pastoral and liturgical practices of congregations or parishes, but though praxis is mentioned several times in passing (but not indexed), elaborations are lacking. Could PT be an incorporation of biography-as-theology, where actual ministers or lay workers practice ministry and out of their work and life stories convey a clear sense of lived convictions? There are places where these topics are mentioned (46, 110-11) and hints of Grethlein’s background work (e.g., six double-columned index pages to “names” with Luther receiving the most and the Charles Taylor the next most, 91). Could an overview of PT consist of integrating case studies in the manner of qualitative social inquiry, perhaps via narrative analysis or grounded theory? There are, again, hints and references in the index to movements or networks that could serve the purpose of being illuminating and exemplary. Would PT necessarily seek out and include marginalized voices as liberation and feminist theologies have, so that the outcome is indeed practical and in the service of biblical and other sacred writings’ mandates? Adding to more than the mere medium of communication, content could be enriched (as the book helpfully offers in sections on Jesus’s ministry and modus operandi—but what of biblically prophetic mandates?). There are two references to liberation theology and implicit recognition of community themes, though nothing specifically on the resurgence of broad-based and church-based community organizing. Is PT a form of social theology, much in the vein of Harvey Cox’s, Kenneth Leech’s, and Luke Bretherton’s writings, where there is a constant interweaving of the practical with the theoretical? There is certainly some of this, but with precious little on engaging the neglected reality of class and economic factors. These beg to be discerned, exposed, and with interdisciplinary help, engaged and redressed (as in, for example, the AAR’s “Class, Religion, and Theology Group”). These are tall and wide challenges for practitioners and theologians.

Overall, I commend this book for its attention to various sources, eras, and a conveyance of sincerely felt scholarship, emphasizing communication theory and modes and evoking Ernest Bloch’s notion of thermal currents of hope.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Barry K. Morris is an independent scholar, long-time urban minister, and author of the recent Hopeful Realism in Urban Ministry.

Date of Review: 
November 14, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Christian Grethlein is Professor of Practical Theology at Westfalian Wilhelms-University.

Uwe Rasch is, among other things, a freelance academic translator and Assistant Editor of Aldous Huxley Annual and the Human Potentialities series of the Center for Aldous Huxley Studies at the University of Münster.

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